We chatted with Francesca Dal Bello, a former Company Secretary, who embarked on a journey of self-discovery and adventure after 16 years at ENI, the Italian multinational oil and gas group, operating in over 70 countries.
About Francesca. Francesca is the former Head of Company Secretariat at Eni UK, the main UK-operating subsidiary of Eni. She joined the company as Legal Secretary in 2001, and completed a MSc in Corporate Governance and qualified as a Chartered Secretary in 2007. In November 2017, Francesca left Eni and volunteered and travelled in South East Asia. She is now the founder of Gr8fool, a life coaching business.
You resigned from ENI after 16 years. What inspired you to make such a change and radically change your life?
Working within Eni felt like being part of a big family. Thanks to the nature of my role, I worked with different parts of the business and geographical areas of the organisation, building valuable experience and connecting with people at various hierarchical levels. Leaving this vibrant environment was very difficult, hence the decision took many months of consideration and preparation. It certainly didn't happen overnight for me.
It started with a longing to slow down my hectic work and social life, to re-connect with neglected values. When you're constantly busy, you forget to check-in with yourself. I soon realised I was on autopilot and something was missing, but I wasn’t sure what.
While trying to decide on my next move, I trained as an accredited life coach which helped me tremendously to create more clarity and a plan of action.
Working in a large organisation offered opportunities to create a career change within the same group, but instead of rushing into anything new, I opted for a time-out from the corporate world entirely. I had access to sufficient independent resources to support me financially through a little exploration phase.
You have been living a great adventure for the past (almost) year. Where have you been? What did you do?
Well, my use of the words “time-out” certainly questions its meaning.
I started creating new adventures even before handing in my resignation. I was still working through my notice period when I took on a challenging 1500 km motorbike ride, from London to my hometown (North of Venice, Italy). On my last day, after packing 16 years of accumulated belonging, I flew to Nepal that evening to join a volunteering project, to help building a new school for a community that lost theirs due to recent earthquakes. From there, I solo-travelled for over 3 months through India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Shortly after my return I embarked on a 930 km pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. I walked an average of 28 km per day, for 33 days. Another life enhancing experience I’d recommend to anyone!
More recently, I set up my coaching business through Gr8fool, as I prepare to set off on my next adventure, solo-touring Europe in a Campervan. While on the road, I plan to connect remotely with anyone seeking my support to uncover their freedom, release any blocking beliefs and plan what’s needed to achieve new fulfilling goals.
What has been the main challenge since the day you resigned?
Self-doubt. I'd wake up some mornings wondering: what have I done?! One minute I am a respected expert in my field and the next I am wandering through life with childlike naivety and curiosity.
But in my sea of uncertainties, I knew the time had come to experiment outside of my comfort zone. I have learnt to quiet down the sabotaging voices in my head and take each day as a wonderful opportunity to learn something new, progress and grow. And all the hard-ship to get where I got to and the knowledge gained over the years are proving invaluable also in my new area of business.
There's a lot of talk around diversity (also beyond gender) in the boardroom. What are your thoughts on this? And what's your experience?
Each individual can contribute its own uniqueness and diversity to the table, which may not necessarily be linked to gender or ethnicity. New guidelines and regulation have helped shifting perceptions and bring opportunities to discover the benefits of teaming up different knowledge, characters and experiences.
Within a group structure, board members of subsidiaries tend to be elected from an internal pool of candidates. Over the years, I witnessed a noticeable and positive change in the board compositions, with a growing number of women also taking up directorship roles, considering the usually male-dominated industry.
Individuality creates value and even more importantly, expressing opinions and ideas openly. Not being your true self defeats the point of diversity, if everyone then tries to conform.
In an age of overwhelming regulations and compliance, fast-paced developments and a more global sense of connectedness, the responsibilities of the boards are increasing and broadening too. Diversity, in all its senses, is therefore key to manage all angles of business and to create innovative solutions.
I would add also the all-important human touch. Regardless of members backgrounds, board decisions should not only focus on enriching shareholders, but also come from a place of love (instead of fear) for your company values and for your wide-ranging group of stakeholders.
Very often the role of Company Secretaries is undervalued by boards and companies. What's your experience? And what is your advice to company secretaries?
I heard this “undervalue” statement on several occasions and I hope this perception has changed for the better over the years.
Fortunately, this was not true in my experience. My role as Secretary of many group subsidiaries was respected and recognised within the organisation. Our secretarial function acted as a focal point of reference for directors and the businesses of the companies we managed. The team's contribution was appreciated also by other departments we regularly engaged with, as well as external auditors etc. If we didn’t have the answer on the spot, we would know how to find it.
If someone is not valuing the multi-tasking and multi-disciplinary skills of Secretaries and their teams, I recommend not getting swallowed up by resentment, but to talk about it with the people concerned. Often misjudgements are based on lack of knowledge and understanding. Many are simply not aware of the work involved. I would look for opportunities to speak about your role and what you do. Share regular reports or presentations of your world, your processes and achievements.
What do you miss the most from your “old” life as a Company Secretary? And what you don't?
There are times when I wish I could have another day back in my old life. I do reminisce over the experiences and good times had. I worked alongside amazing people and on many interesting projects too.
I do miss the variety of the Company Secretarial job and its dynamic environment. I aim to stay informed on regulatory developments and I do use many learnt skills in running my own business.
They say when a door closes, a new one opens. But in my case, I didn’t entirely close the CoSec door, and I have renewed my Fellow membership with the ICSA.
But I have no regrets for the decision I made. Had I not taken the big leap, I would have missed out on so many incredible lessons and life-changing experiences. And the learning continues on.
What advice would you give to all Company Secretaries that are reading your interview?
I hope my story inspires you not so much to leave your 9-5, oh no, but to create more stillness in your lives, to check-in more often with yourself, to ensure your work is aligned with your core values. With alignment comes greater satisfaction and wellbeing.
And just like board members, I believe the uniqueness of each Company Secretary can add tremendous value to the business you are in. It is a privileged position to hold; often a perfect linchpin between the most influential parts of the organisation and the practical doers. Don’t be afraid to propose your innovative solutions and bring in forward-thinking ideas. I am sure most of you already do. I know Company Secretaries who are very successful through their creativity. We’re not just about compliance, right?
What's next for you?
Well, from end of September I will embrace a new vanlife, travelling through Europe for a year or so. While on the road, I will share blogs on my website (gr8fool.com) and continue serving people through coaching. I am also looking to organise exciting workshops and get-away retreats, to join my journey somewhere special along my route (TBC).
My goal is to spread positivity and teach optimism in whichever work or sector I find myself in. I welcome any constructive and fun collaborations that can help enhance satisfaction and wellbeing in communities, schools and organisations.
To contact Francesca, visit Gr8fool.com